It is mid-February of the pandemic winter, but even this one won’t last forever. It’s time for us to face a cold, hard fact: most of those dried beans we all panic-stockpiled last spring are still lurking in our cupboards. We see them when we reach in for peanut butter or a can of tomatoes. Our hearts race. We avoid eye contact. My friends, we need to do something about those dried beans before spring rolls around.
I decided to turn to bean superfan Joe Yonan for help. His day job is being the food editor at the Washington Post. On the side, he’s a rising oracle of ancient legumes, and author of Cool Beans: the ultimate guide to cooking with the world’s most versatile plant-based protein. His book was published in the nick of time, just a month before the pandemic sent us into lockdown.
West Texas-born Yonan’s road from certified barbecue judge to bean prophet included a detour into the history (“Cicero’s name is derived from chickpea,” he tells me) and culture of beans. And even though I was raised on black-eyed peas and red beans — staples for the near-poor in southern Louisiana — I found his book enlightening.
Given the timing of the book’s release, some have asked whether Yonan had intel on the impending pandemic. He denies any inside epidemiological scoop, but does closely follow the ways Americans eat. For that reason, it wasn’t news to him that people emptied the bean aisles last spring: “I was a little surprised about the ferocity of it all,” he said, “but not that people turned to beans.”
He attributes the rising popularity of beans to a blossoming interest in plant-based diets, and to the availability of top-quality heirloom varieties, a trend led by the California producer Rancho Gordo. He also credits the Instant Pot, which showed people that beans can be prepared from scratch without soaking. “Of course,” Yonan reminds me, “those of us cooking beans in pressure cookers for decades already knew that, but suddenly the secret was out.”
Expensive heirloom beans like those from Rancho Gordo go for $6 a pound. That’s about three times what you’d pay for conventional beans. “Even at their most expensive,” Yonan says, “what other protein source can you get six meals out of for that price point? Not meat.”
Beans, says Yonan, are the only food classified as both a vegetable and protein. Compared to any other pantry-stable product, he says, for ease, variety, nutrition, and cost, “beans win by a landslide.”
I asked Yonan why he thinks we fear the beans that mock us from our cupboards? “People think that because they didn’t already plan to cook them yesterday, they can’t have beans for dinner tonight,” Yonan says. He’s trying to change that notion.
The key to making friends with your dried beans is to simply get into the habit of cooking them regularly. Yonan cooks a pot of simply flavored beans, then uses them throughout the week in tacos, salads, dips, soups, and stews. “Cook a pot of beans on Sunday and figure out what you’re going to do with them later,” he says. They also freeze beautifully and defrost easily for a weeknight meal.
I’ve cooked enough recipes from Cool Beans now for my copy to be spattered and stained, and for my bean stockpile to have returned to a manageable level. This is one that calls for great northern beans, but navy, cannellini, or any other white bean will be just as good. You can cook the beans ahead and put the rest together when you’re hungry. It’s a great example of how you can make a delicious meal with one pot of beans and still have some to spare.
Garlicky Great Northern Beans and Broccoli Rabe
2 cups (about 1 lb.) dried great northern beans
12 whole cloves
2 large carrots
1 3×5-in. strip kombu
3 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small bunch broccoli rabe
4 garlic cloves
½ tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
¼ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
2 thick slices good bread
1 tsp. chili oil
Shaved Parmesan as a garnish
You can soak the beans overnight to reduce the cooking time, but it isn’t necessary. Place beans in a large pot with enough water to cover them by two inches.
Peel the onion and stud it with the cloves, pushing their pointed ends in to secure them. Wash and trim the carrots, and add the onion, carrots, kombu, and bay leaves to the pot.
(Kombu is a kind of dried seaweed that adds umami and is known to improve digestibility of beans — and reduce their gaseous effects. You can find it in most grocery stores.)
Turn the heat to medium high, bring the beans to a boil, and let them boil for 5 minutes, then reduce heat so the beans are at a bare simmer, cover and cook until the beans are very tender. (The time will vary depending on the quality and age of the beans; about 1 hour if soaked, longer if not.)
Once the beans are tender, discard the onion, carrots, kombu, and bay leaves and strain the beans, reserving all of the cooking liquid. You’ll use about half of the beans for this dish and the rest will go into the refrigerator or freezer (in their cooking liquid) for another meal.
Wash and cut the broccoli rabe into one-inch pieces. Mince the garlic. In a deep skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the broccoli rabe until very tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until it starts to soften, about 2 minutes.
Toast two thick slices of sourdough or other good bread while you finish up. Stir in about one half of the drained beans, a cup of the reserved cooking liquid, and the salt. If the dish doesn’t seem beany enough, add more. Cook just until the beans are hot, add the pepper and more salt, if needed.
Place the toast in shallow serving bowls, drizzle with chile oil, if desired, and spoon the bean mixture and broth on top. Finish with the cheese and serve hot.